The Netherlands’ Most Stalwart Servant: The Life and Reign of Queen Wilhelmina

by Holley Snaith

The official inaugural portrait of the eighteen-year-old Queen Wilhelmina, 1898.
Source: Royal Palace Amsterdam

“I consider it a great privilege that Mine’s life’s task and duty is to devote all My powers to the welfare and flourishing of My dear Fatherland. The words of My Beloved Father I make Mine: “Orange can never, yes never do enough for the Netherlands.”” – Excerpt from Queen Wilhelmina’s Inaugural Speech 

On a cold November’s morning in 1890, King William III of the Netherlands, who had reigned for more than four decades, died at Het Loo Palace at the age of 73. For a couple of years prior to his death, the King was mentally unable to carry out his duties as monarch, though there had long been whispers he was insane. The monarch’s incompetency had led the Council of State to declare the thirty-year-old Queen Emma as regent. But once King William died, the eyes of the nation turned to the ten-year-old girl who was her father’s sole heir: Wilhelmina Helena Paulina Maria. 

Wilhelmina was born in The Hague on August 31 1880, the only child of King William and Queen Emma (his second wife). It was said that the last ten years of the King’s life were his most joyous because of the presence of his bright and vivacious daughter. King William had three sons from his first marriage to Queen Sophie, yet all would predecease their father, leaving young Wilhelmina the successor to the Dutch throne. 

Although Princess Wilhelmina was more than intellectually capable of handling the duties assigned to the monarch, Dutch law required Queen Emma to serve as her daughter’s regent until she became of age.  On September 6, 1898, a few days after her eighteenth birthday, Queen Wilhelmina was inaugurated at the New Church in Amsterdam. In her inaugural address to the Dutch people, the young queen dedicated “all my strength to the wellbeing and growth of the Fatherland so precious to me.” 

Just two and a half years after her inauguration, Queen Wilhelmina married a man deemed a perfect consort: Duke Henry of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Over the next few years, Wilhelmina would suffer miscarriages and give birth to a stillborn son before safely delivering her only child, Princess Juliana, in 1909. Although the union between the Queen and the Duke would last until his death in 1934, the marriage grew strained over the years. It was known in Dutch circles that Henry embarked upon extra-marital affairs, and had produced at least one illegitimate child, and she turned increasingly to religion. 

Queen Wilhelmina with her only child and heir, Juliana Louise Emma Marie Wilhelmina, ca. 1913.
Source: Heavenly Holland

As sovereign, Wilhelmina developed the reputation of being strong-willed and was never hesitant to speak her mind, a result of her comfortable and secure upbringing. One of the first critical decisions the Queen made was ordering the Dutch warship HNLMS Gelderland to rescue Paul Kruger, a South African politician, from the South African province of Transvaal. Transvaal had long been an independent nation, until the British, eager to expand their imperial empire, defeated them in the Second Boer War. Boers inhabited the Transvaal region of South Africa, and because Boers were of Dutch descent, Queen Wilhelmina perceived this as a British invasion and developed an antagonistic attitude towards Britain that lingered until World War II.  

Wielding an astute political mind, Wilhelmina recognized the benefits of staying neutral throughout World War I, although Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany tried unsuccessfully to form an alliance with the Dutch monarch. Despite the declaration of neutrality, the Allies viewed the proximity between the Netherlands and Germany as a threat and included the country in their German blockade, hurting the small nation’s economy. 

By this time, Queen Wilhelmina was wealthy in her own right, due in large part to her inheritance from her father and some savvy business choices, and many of her business ventures suffered as a result of the Russian Revolution. The events in Russia inspired the leader of the Dutch Socialist Party to also attempt to win over Parliament and overthrow the current government, and the Queen herself. Instead, the attempt to abolish the monarchy only helped boost her popularity.

During the post-war period, Wilhelmina financially recovered and made several investments in the United States, eventually becoming the first female billionaire in U.S. currency. The Queen was passionate about helping the Dutch economy rebuild after World War I, and her personal funds resulted in the Netherlands becoming one of the world’s leading industrial powers in the 1920s and 30s.  

As the 1930s came to an end, it became increasingly clear that the Netherlands’ peaceful era was coming to an end. Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime were conquering Europe, and they successfully invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. The Queen’s old feelings of animosity towards Great Britain softened when King George VI sent a warship to rescue the Dutch royal family and Government and evacuate them to London. Acknowledging the importance of maintaining communication with her people, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) allowed the monarch to speak to her subjects on Radio Oranje. The Dutch people found comfort in these late-night broadcasts from their monarch, who boldly referred to Adolph Hitler as the “arch-enemy of all mankind.” These newscasts made such an impression on British prime minister Winston Churchill that he was quoted as having said, “I fear no man in the world but Queen Wilhelmina.” 

During one of her trips to the United States during World War II, Queen Wilhelmina visited George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Naval Aide Admiral John L. McCrea.
Source: The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon

World War II took a toll on Queen Wilhelmina’s health, and twice after the royal family returned to their homeland, Princess Juliana was asked to serve as regent because of her mother’s ill health. Finally, after 58 years on the Dutch throne, on September 4, 1948, Queen Wilhelmina announced her decision to abdicate in favor of her daughter. Now Her Royal Highness Princess Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, the former queen retreated to Het Loo Palace and retired from public life, though she did appear after catastrophic floods swept through the Netherlands in 1953 to rally the Dutch people. 

In 1959, Princess Wilhelmina published her autobiography, Lonely but Not Alone, in which she discussed her reign through the two world wars, her family, and the importance of faith. Three years later, on November 28, 1962, Wilhelmina died of heart failure at Het Loo Palace. She was buried in the royal crypt at the New Church, the place where the eighteen-year-old Queen Wilhelmina had pledged to dedicate her life to serving the people of Netherlands; a promise that the longest-reigning Dutch monarch kept. 

Recommended Materials

Article: The inauguration of Queen Wilhelmina (1898).

Article: The Story of Queen Wilhelmina – the World’s First Female Billionaire. 

Video: Inauguration Queen Wilhelmina 1898

Video: Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands Broadcasts in Britain (1940)

About the Author

Holley Snaith is a writer and historian who specializes in 20th century U.S. history. Her passion for history began in high school when she completed her senior project on Franklin Roosevelt and the creation of the March of Dimes and interned at Roosevelt’s Little White House in Georgia. After graduating with a B.A. in History from the University of Florida, Holley moved to New York and began an internship with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum. Next, she embarked upon a historical restoration project in partnership with the National Park Service at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, Val-Kill, and served as program assistant to the Girls’ Leadership Worldwide Program at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center. 

Holley has also worked for the Richard Nixon Foundation in California. There, she conducted research and created an exhibit on Pat Nixon at the University of Southern California, as well as managed donor relations. As a freelance writer and historian, Holley continues to write articles on inspirational historical figures and has been published in American Heritage Magazine. She holds an M.S.A. in Public Administration from the University of West Florida. 

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